Skip to main content

Gawain and the Green Knight (1973)


Inspired by the new David Lowery film, I went looking for the version of Gawain and the Green Knight which I remember enjoying on telly back when I was young and impressionable. And I found it on YouTube for free! This was good, because I’m not convinced it would be worth paying for. But it was interesting, and my word, what a cast -  Anthony Sharpe, Ronald Lacey, Pauline Letts, Robert Hardy, Geoffrey Bayldon, Murray Melvin - the cream of mid-tier 1970s British thespery, all slicing it thick and serving it raw. Nigel Green is on particularly fine form as the titular jolly green giant, despite being lumbered with a second rate panto costume and a beard-and-bouffant combo that would make a Bee Gee blanch. The opening scene, where he arrives at Camelot to deliver his challenge, feels very close in spirit to the King Arthur stories I encountered growing up.

But the plot quickly veers off-piste. The great Rosemary Sutcliff is credited (mis-spelled) as Script Consultant, and perhaps we have her to thank for the bits that feel like proper Arthuriana. But writer/director Stephen Weeks doesn’t seem much interested in Gawain’s quest, preferring to send him off on a variety of side-missions. Murray Head as Gawain looks like the lead guitarist in a minor prog rock outfit, but otherwise there’s not much of the 1970s about this. It feels as if it could have been made in the ‘40s or ‘50s, and I suspect Stephen Weeks was aiming for the swash and buckle of Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood. Some of the fight scenes are pretty well done, I think, but there are too many of them, and it all ends up feeling rather conventional. The interiors are under-dressed and over-lit, and the clothes look like repertory theatre Shakespeare costumes. On the plus side, Ron Godwin’s main theme is a lovely bit of British Light Classical faux medievalism,  there are some excellent wintry woods and Welsh waterfalls, and Castel Coch looks fantastic in the backlit mist. Every now and then there’s an image that feels properly Arthurian, like an Alan Lee painting come to life: I can see why it appealed to me at twelve or thirteen. 

But the story gets lost, just as it does in the recent film. Linnet gives Gawain a green girdle, but it’s a love token and carries none of the symbolic weight of the one in the poem. Sir Bertilak is just a good egg.   Gawain acquires a squire called Humphrey (David Leland) who doesn’t have much to do and vanishes for long periods when the plot demands it. He also finds a love interest in the form of an enchantress called Linnet (Ciaran Madden), so his solitary quest gets a bit overcrowded (although there’s a good section in the middle where he does wander about on his own in the mountains). The final meeting in the Green Chapel has a certain frisson, but the ending is fumbled again. 

So the definitive Gawain film is still waiting to be made. If I could think of a way to do Camelot on a tight budget, I’d have a go myself.

(Oddly, Stephen Weeks remade this film in the mid-eighties as Sword of the Valiant, with Sean Connery in the Green Knight role. I’ve never seen it, but it’s supposed to be really bad...)

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Utterly Dark & the Face of the Deep

It was always at sundown they were seen. In that twilight hour, when the walls between the worlds grew thin, strange things might slip through the cracks. Sometimes then, so the stories went, enchanted islands would appear in the empty ocean to the west of Wildsea…     I have a new novel coming out in September! The cover (above) is by Paddy Donnelly (who is also working on some chapter-head vignettes), and it will be published by David Fickling Books . Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep takes place in the early 1800s on the remote island of Wildsea. For centuries, the Dark family have acted as Watchers, keeping a look-out for mysterious islands which are believed to appear from time to time on the western sea, and guarding Wildsea against a terrible monster which is said to live on them. When the current Watcher mysteriously drowns, his young ward Utterly takes over his duties. Gradually, she starts to discover her strange connection with the forces which dwell in the deep ocean.

Lord of the Rings 7: Minas Tirith

'This is not a work which many adults will read through more than once,' claimed the historical novelist Alfred Duggan, reviewing The Lord of the Rings when it was published. But I've read it through LOADS of times and now I'm blogging my latest re-read, so what did he know? And so we come to Minas Tirith, Tower of Guard, citadel of Gondor, seven tiers of fancy white fortifications built against a buttress of Mount Mindolluin, with the Tower of Ecthelion rising a thousand feet above the plain. It seems to me the template on which a whole genre of knock-off fantasy cities has been based - I guess Robert E Howard and people wrote about such places before Tolkien, and perhaps there were cities of equal grandeur on Barsoom, but when concept art threads on Instagram throw up unlikely gold and marble castles built on mountaintops and over waterfalls they always look distinctly Minas Tirithy to me. I'm wondering now if London in Mortal Engines was subconsciously echoin

Excalibur at Forty

It's hard to believe forty years have passed since I watched Excalibur rise from the lake. It was Sunday, July 5th, 1981, around 2.45 in the afternoon, and I was in the ABC Cinema in Brighton. I remember it as if it were yesterday. In paintings and illustrations Excalibur often emerges from the lake at an angle. Sometimes it's in a scabbard and the Lady of the Lake grasps it by the middle; you can imagine her waggling it about to get Arthur's attention. But in Excalibur it rushes straight up, the misty water parting with a ripple around the eerily green-lit blade until at last the hilt breaks the surface, scattering slow-motion droplets like seed pearls.It's like watching the launch of an Apollo rocket. From the trees at the water's edge, mission controller Merlin looks on in awe. What he's probably wondering is, what happens next? Does he have a little boat moored among the roots to get him out to the middle of the mere where the sword is waiting for him? Or